In a country that over the years has seen a politics of exclusion and consent-manufacturing, a prime minister acquiring sweeping powers even before the new parliament is constituted may not immediately raise any concern. Last Wednesday, the cabinet amended rules to bring intelligence, revenue investigation and anti-money laundering departments under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The PMO also took over the powers so far exercised by the women and social welfare ministry with regard to the registration and monitoring of international donors and NGOs. Some of these organisations have been accused of supporting secessionist activities and fomenting social unrest.
The Oli government that includes the CPN-United Marxist Leninist and the CPN-Maoist Centre, already commands absolute majority in the 275-member Parliament. It is likely to rope in Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum, the biggest Madhes-based party, which will give the Oli government a two-thirds majority in parliament. The Forum is considered to be close to China, and its joining the coalition and government will fulfil Beijing’s wish to have a stable and friendly regime in Kathmandu.
However, a government that enjoys two-thirds majority in parliament and a prime minister with sweeping powers may not necessarily help the consolidation of democracy in Nepal. Building democracy was a declared objective of the 12-point agreement that India facilitated as the basis of the peace deal involving seven pro-democracy parties and the Maoists in November 2005. In the absence of robust institutions, the country’s political parties have revealed a tendency to exercise power without accountability.
Oli has already fortified his position as prime minister. How he exercises power in the coming days will determine whether he can further his power ambitions. He has already secured the commitment of influential leaders within his own party and among the Maoists to get Bidhya Devi Bhandari, a former head of the UML’s women’s wing, reelected as the country’s president. Presidential polls are slated to be held on March 13.
The president’s role, though more ceremonial, will be crucial in the coming days since cabinet decisions need to be endorsed by the office. Bhandari has been at loggerheads with the Nepali Congress, which ran the government before the communists took over, and had refused to endorse cabinet recommendations regarding the formation of the upper house of parliament and the nomination of three “experts” to it. The urgency on the part of Oli to get the Forum to join the ruling coalition is to seal Bhandari’s re-election.
A day after Oli vested himself with all powers, his ally and Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal, issued a veiled threat to potential opponents at a public meeting. He said the government will now arrest and prosecute all who have plundered public funds no matter who they are. “From security to judiciary, all such people will be punished,” he said. Many fear that the ruling government, once it has a brute majority in parliament, may launch a witch-hunt against its rivals. The widespread perception that the judiciary, including the supreme court, is partisan and corrupt — judges with “party background” have been recruited since 2006 — has accentuated the fear.
Besides the courts, all constitutional organs of the state including the Election Commission and the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Authority have been packed with nominees of major political parties, mainly the UML, CPN-Maoist Centre and the Nepali Congress. Dahal is expected to succeed Oli to the PM’s office in three years and his remarks are seen as a warning to those in offices that can stall the government’s actions. Dahal also wants to make sure that the supreme court takes a lenient view of the human rights violations reported during the Maoist insurgency. In any case, the Maoists have been a votary of a judiciary accountable to parliament, a position that has come to suit Oli as well of late.
For now, Oli may have his way since all the major parties including the Nepali Congress have together excluded traditional and conservative forces from the political process since 2006, ignored established norms and processes in the making of the constitution and allowed institutions to collapse. However, attempts by politicians to monopolise power have in the past invited organised protests.